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Does Everyone Matter Equally?

Sally Kohn

From the superdelegate process to the farm bill to the recent raid on immigrants in Postville, Iowa, elitism is rearing its nipped-and-tucked head all across America.

How else can you explain anointing a handful of Democratic party officials to have more power in the nominating process than millions of average American voters? According to CNN, each Democratic superdelegate has more power than 13,000 primary voters. So just like George Bush was able to ignore millions of people marching in the streets against the Iraq War, the superdelegates are free to replace the will of the voters with their own whims. The idea that, like father, superdelegates know best, is anti-democratic and elitist.

The farm bill passed by Congress last week is no different. The New York Times notes that Safia Ali, a 25-year-old mother of five in Somalia, can no longer afford rice or wheat or powdered milk. The price of food commodities has skyrocketed in recent months, setting off a global food crisis. Safi Ali has not eaten in a week and her family is starving. The response of the richest nation in the world? Pass a food bill that increases cash subsidies to the very same large, corporate-owned farms that are manipulating crop prices in the first place. Between 1998 and 2007, profits of the agribusiness giant Cargill increased nearly 1000% -- from $280 million to a whopping $2.3 billion -- extorting from rising crop prices on the one hand and from taxpayer-funded farm subsidies on the other. Small family farmers in the United States and poor people here and oversees like Safia Ali are the victim's of our government policies, not the beneficiaries. Politicians in Washington side with big business elites.

Also last week, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raided a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and arrested and detained at least 300 undocumented immigrants but as many as 700. Workers at the Agriprocessor meatpacking plant were slaving away under extremely oppressive conditions -- in March 2008, the plant was cited with 39 violations of workplace health and safety laws. But rather than step in and twist the hand of the corporation to clean up its act, raise and enforce a minimum wage and provide good public schools and affordable healthcare -- the kinds of things Agriprocessor's workers and everyone in the struggling town of Postville really needs -- government agents came with guns and handcuffs to terrorize the workers. (Any close-minded nativists who would argue that undocumented immigrants are the real criminals in Postville should kindly explain when pursuing the American dream became a crime.)

As a nation, we are more concerned with the few at the top than the many struggling at the bottom. It's not just politicians who are guilty here. The majority of Americans are more concerned about Angelina Jolie's shrinking waistline than Safia Ali starving in Somalia. Does Angelina Jolie matter more? Do the superdelegates? The corporate titans?

While donor-driven politics and celebrity-driven culture have always privileged the elite few over the many, it's getting worse. It's no longer simply that the rich and famous are worthier than everyone else. Increasingly, everyone else is worthless. The rise in reality television shows can be attributed to a growing sense, thank you Madison Avenue, that you only matter if you're famous so now everyone wants to be. The staggering rise in CEO salaries, while real wages for most Americans have been stagnant or even decreased, is the direct result of the belief that the rich deserve to get richer at the expense of shared prosperity.


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The plight of Safia Ali and the undocumented immigrants in Postville and even the discounted Democratic primary voters is not the result of a lack of hard work or personal responsibility, fingers we often point at those who are poor or disenfranchised in the United States. The plight of those at the bottom, a group growing bigger by the day as the economy tumbles and the middle class evaporates, comes because we think the people at the top are inherently superior -- and that elitism is cemented in our culture and in our policies.

Elitism is anti-American. When the colonists revolted against England, they were revolting against the idea that one person -- the King -- mattered more than the rest of them. And while we have stumbled gravely in our pursuit of egalitarianism -- from the very early mistreatment of American Indians to slavery to the examples above today -- the idea that we are all equally valuable and should be treated as such is emblazoned in the American story, our entrepreneurial independence alongside our deep moral commitment to be our brothers and sisters' keeper. In the America we aspire to be, everyone matters as much as everyone else. We are all equal, interdependent and interconnected.

Undocumented immigrants have every much of a right to be in the United States as I do. That I was born on one side of the border does not make me fundamentally more deserving of the opportunities of this nation than anyone else. (In fact, arguably the fact that many immigrants have been forced to flee their home countries because of the disastrous economic and foreign policies of the United States, may argue for an even stronger claim than mine; having only ever benefited from America, I should be giving back not benefiting more.) Safia Ali, who has nowhere to which to flee, is no less deserving of food and shelter than I am, nor for that matter less deserving of a good job, a college education, or even designer clothes. And the superdelegates votes shouldn't count more than yours or mine.

Those who are on top are not more worthy of being on top. Those who are on the bottom are not more deserving of being on the bottom. But until we really embrace the idea of inherent and equal human worth, in our hearts and our souls -- and not just among the people we know personally but for everyone, worldwide, no matter their situation -- the community values that America represents will remain a good idea on paper but warped and elusive in practice.

Sally Kohn is the Director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change. On Sunday, May 18, 2008, there will be a rally in Postville, Iowa, for the immigrants detained in last week's raid and events across the country showing support for the Postville community. For more information, visit

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